I once read a manifesto by the anti-feminist True Women Movement that stated as one of its points:
Selfish insistence on personal rights is contrary to the spirit of Christ who humbled Himself, took on the form of a servant, and laid down His life for us.
Though I cringe when I read this now, I once thought the same thing about humility. To be humble, I mustn’t assert my right to anything. Humility meant viewing myself as I was taught to believe God viewed me (without Jesus’ intervention of course)–as a filthy, disgusting, vomit-inducing sinner that deserves no more than eternity in hell. Humility meant, in the face of oppression, I was to be submissive. I was to let people hurt me, take advantage of me, and I was never to retaliate in any form.
Humility meant there was nothing good about me. Humility meant I didn’t deserve anything. Since I was no good and didn’t deserve good things, the greatest expression of humility meant to be “like Jesus (who was good and worthy, of course, but was acting in my place),” and submit myself to anyone that I felt might be oppressing me.
There was a huge double standard in all of this, of course. The feminist movement was prideful and selfish for wanting to help women, while white, male, Christian leaders were allowed to rant about how oppressed they were because the cashier at Walmart said “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” Basically, the standards of humility were most heavily enforced on those who were already oppressed in order to prevent them from rising up against their oppressors who, (surprise, surprise!) were often white, male Christian leaders
Humility, as I learned it, was not a Christian virtue but a twisted tool of oppression.
Jesus spent his whole life standing up to religious leaders, asserting his rights and the rights of the oppressed. He spent his whole life boldly asserting himself. Jesus’ death did not occur because he humbly submitted himself to authorities but because he did the opposite. He terrified the authorities and they killed him in a desperate attempt to put his followers in “their place.”
Knowing what I know about Jesus, I can’t buy into that idea of humility anymore. However, I don’t believe I should throw the concept of humility out the window either. I have to find a new way to express the virtue of humility–one that allows me to stand up for myself and others, to boldly assert my personhood and to define my own identity in Christ, to speak my mind and to claim my rights.
Rosemary Radford Reuther–whose book, Sexism and God-Talk has recently become one of my favorites–offers a different perspective on humility.
One gains humility in one’s criticism of arrogant egoism in [oppressive groups]. Humility here is no longer a tool of timidity and servitude but assumes it’s rightful meaning as truthful self-knowledge of one’s own capacity for oppressive pride.
Oppression is complicated. There isn’t always a black and white divide between the oppressed and the oppressors. Most of us occupy a context that situates us as both. I am a woman, therefore, in the context of patriarchy, I am oppressed. I am engaged to a man, therefore, in the context of heteronormativity, I am potentially an oppressor. I have a mental disability, therefore in the context of our ableist culture I am oppressed. I am white, therefore in the context of racism I am potentially an oppressor.
So, what if we made humility about recognizing where we stand in the matrix of oppression? What if humility could mean that, as I criticize the way powerful men treat women, I stopped for a moment to listen to my own words and to rethink how I treat people of color? What if humility could mean that, as I demand that mentally able-bodied people listen to me before they judge people on medication for mental illnesses, I also remember to listen to the stories of LGBT people or poor people or people from different countries?
If we rethink humility, it can become a powerful virtue that breaks the cycle of oppression and sets captives free. A bit of humility can keep us in check, making sure that we’re always fighting for justice, not just fighting for a seat at the table of power.
Distorted, power-hungry Christianity may try to use this virtue to tear down movements of justice, but we can reclaim humility. We need to reclaim humility, because without it, power structures stay in tact. Without it, nothing changes.